Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.
~by Scott Pinkmountain
I built a raft. I think it’s sturdy, I think it will hold, hell I even think it looks pretty good, but my opinion doesn’t count for much. I spent a huge amount of time working on it – designing it, sketching out plans, building models and prototypes, testing individual pieces, assembling it, tearing it apart and starting over again. And this was after basically a lifetime of preparation.
I’ve been building stuff since I was young. It wasn’t always rafts. Sometimes buoys or canoes, or go-carts. I even built a small glider once. It flew almost fifty feet. But for the past few years, I’ve focused entirely on rafts. I studied archaic and contemporary designs, I consulted with expert builders, I immersed myself in the raft-building community. I even got a two-year accredited degree in Raft Craft.
And then I hunkered down and built the best raft I possibly could. It took years.
When I was done, I had a few people come and check it out. Some were just fellow apprentices like myself, people who’d never had their own raft-building skills pass the full litany of tests and make it all the way through patenting to market, but a couple were actual, certified master builders. I went through a couple rounds of fixes based on suggestions from these folks, and was incredibly relieved and proud to finally get the thumbs up. “She’s seaworthy,” the most experienced and championed of the builders wrote on a small note which I tucked into to the pocket of my waterproof coat.
With that encouragement, I made my final preparations, gathered everything I believed I needed, and pushed off from shore, alone. My spirits were high. I felt confident and excited to see where my little raft would take me. I even let myself relish the possibility of an ideal outcome – that my raft would come to be recognized as a valued contribution to the craft, my innovations and specializations would be appreciated, maybe the design would even be picked up by a major corporation and developed into its own successful line. I tried to dismiss these indulgent fantasies. I knew they were toxic. I was aware that I’d be lucky to have anyone at all even notice my raft, since there are so many other rafts out there. But it had been praised by a truly great builder after all. Maybe there was an inkling of greatness in my raft?
Before I took any action, I did a quick inventory check. Provisions, emergency radio, list of coordinates, flare gun and a box of about a hundred hand-made flares. The flares are specially designed to burn a brilliant neon purple that really catches the eye, and they make this high-pitched whistle that glissandos in a melodious arc. I actually made them myself. I spent weeks off from rafts to work exclusively on the flares. I obviously didn’t get into raft-building to become a flare-maker – dealing with color theory and flammable chemicals – but everybody’s got to do it, so I try not to complain.
The craziest thing is that you have to specialize each and every flare to a guess at the taste of the person you’re hoping will see it. How it works is, I go out on my raft and I consult my elaborately researched list of coordinates. Each coordinate identifies a raft entrepreneur; someone who helps connect raft-builders with raft companies. A kind of middleman valued for his “ins” and his record at “picking winners.” My plan is to catch the attention of one of these entrepreneurs by firing a flare near his or her coordinates (tailored to pique his or her particular interests), and hope that it will compel some of these entrepreneurs to come check out my raft. And if they do come, then the hope is that they’ll really love my raft, or at least see enough potential in it that they will agree to “rescue me.” That’s raft industry jargon for connecting me with raft companies, because the big dream, of course, is that one of these companies will take me on, shepherd me through the patenting process, mass produce my design, undertake a marketing campaign, oversee its distribution, and deliver it to the public with their credible endorsement. All I need to do, all I really can do, is sit here, fire off these flares and hope to be rescued.
It sounds like a pretty flimsy plan when I put it into words.
It’s also not totally accurate. I’m not completely idle and passive out here on my raft. I try to spend time every day sketching designs for new rafts (everyone always tells you to start immediately on the next raft!). I’m also constantly carving little artisan emergency whistles and dropping them into the sea in sealed bottles hoping someone will find them and become curious about my raft-building skills. And I spend a lot of time on the radio, consulting with friends about their rafts and flares, trying to gather new or updated coordinates, trying to hustle up some side work making oars and life vests.
I’ve been out here a couple years now, floating. I still occasionally fantasize about my raft making it to market, though the story’s changed a bit. Now, there would be a lot of press about how long my raft was overlooked, how foolish all those people who ignored my flares were. But the fantasies are quickly subsumed by my general nausea and sea-sickness, and – more often than I wish to admit – doubt. Maybe my raft doesn’t deserve to make it to market? Yeah, it’s out here and it floats, but just being able to float isn’t enough. Any clown can strap a few logs together. Maybe it’s just not “special,” whatever the fuck that means.
I thought I used to know what made something special, but now I’m not so sure. I think back to my friends and fellow apprentices who believed in me and my raft. I now question their opinions, study them for faults or blind spots or various agendas. Maybe they were just saying nice things so as not to hurt my feelings? Surely they wouldn’t all let me believe this thing would be seaworthy if it absolutely wasn’t? Would they? I think back to the approval of the master builder. Her note has creased and faded in my pocket. Maybe she didn’t really look closely at the stitching and construction? Maybe she’s out of the loop of today’s raft market?
I’m tired. I only have a few flares left in my box. I spent a lot of time and energy making those flares only to watch them burn out and fizzle in the water. A couple entrepreneurs did come down to the shore, but none got in the water, none bothered to take a close look. They were probably just killing time on their lunch break, not even pausing their cell phone conversations long enough to say hello. Meanwhile, a few of my friends have also launched their rafts, shot off their flares. Some of them had entrepreneurs paddle out immediately, connect them directly to huge raft-makers. Others are floating out here nearby. Others still already swam back to shore, abandoning their rafts to the sea.
It’s lonely and embarrassing to sit here adrift. I don’t get on the radio much anymore to talk about my raft. What’s there to say? Once in a very rare while I hear someone blow one of my little carved whistles off in the distance. Tweet. It just kind of bums me out. I don’t really bother with designs for new rafts either. If no one’s interested in this one, I don’t see why I should spend a few years building another one. It’s not like it’s going to be significantly better or suddenly appealing to entrepreneurs. Everyone says you just have to keep building rafts for the sake of building rafts or because you truly love it, otherwise you’re not really a raft-builder or something. But you know what? Fuck them. I built a good raft. It’s just…
I’m aware that attitude won’t get me anywhere, but it’s sometimes hard keeping the negative stuff at bay. I’m out here alone with my self-doubt, my narcissism, my anxiety, my entitlement. It can get ugly.
The most absurd part is, I’m only about forty feet from shore, in chest-deep water, and there’s lots of people right there on the beach. My partner, a handful of friends, some family. They’re having a little barbecue, not exactly in my honor, but I’m clearly welcome. There’s good food and strong drinks, though I’m choosing to eat stale rations and drink only what little rainwater I gather. They mostly support and believe in my raft-building and a few of them seem to genuinely like it, like they would maybe even buy this raft if it was in a store and it wasn’t even me who made it. Or they care about me so much that they’ve convinced me they would. It’s hard for me to tell the difference, which is part of why I feel the need to test it out with complete strangers.
So I sit here and wonder at what point do I ditch this raft and go join everyone on shore. The thought of letting it go breaks my heart. It seems insane to have invested so much in it, to still genuinely love it, and just let it float away into oblivion. But is it more insane to cling to the raft and to all the awful feelings around it being ignored and passed over by strangers simply looking to turn a profit? Especially when there are these people right over there who love and accept both me and the raft unconditionally. That could be more than enough if I let it be.
But here I am, still drifting in open water.
Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications, and he hosts the Make/Work podcast for The Rumpus. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at www.scottpinkmountain.com and @spinkmountain.
Aaron Hawn is a photographer and musician who lives in Pioneertown, CA. In 2012, after cycling the back roads of Louisiana and Texas, he released a book of photography called, “Warm Dome”. Hawn’s images frequently feature barren and personal landscapes. www.aaronhawn.com